Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Reservation Seatbelts

Ian Frazier's On the Rez is an apologetic text, and Frazier does not tell the story he wants. An Indian-wannabe, he writes "I kind of resent the term 'wannabe'" (4). Frazier's problem lies with his yearning to be Indian without all of the baggage that comes along with the ethnicity. He admires the American Native and yet at the same time keeps the Indian at an arm's length. 
            Frazier divides his book in two: that of his friendship with Le War Lance and that of his fascination with SuAnne Big Crow. The two stories seem polar opposites, and both individuals stand in, if not for all of American Indians then at least, for the Ogala.  Le seems to represent the "white-trash" Indian, not necessarily everything that is wrong or destructive within Indian culture, but at least the darker, more desperate side of Ogala life on the reservation. Le is a failure, but Frazier portrays Le as a successful failure. Several times, for example, Le has brushes with death, but survives. SuAnne, on the opposite side, represents the success of Indian culture and reservation life and exactly what everyone should aspire to be—Indian or not. SuAnne's ultimate death suggests success on the reservation and as an Indian comes at a high cost. Her death, in Frazier's eyes I believe, is an example of Indian failure—the Big Crow Center only a shadow of what SuAnne could have possibly accomplished if she had survived the car crash.
            Frazier seems connected to Le in a haphazard way. The relationship always plays out in Le's favor as opposed to Frazier's favor. In this way, it is a lopsided friendship. Le is needy, often asking for money. Frazier's gifts of money seem to go beyond the simple and complex wopila tradition. Le sometimes threatens to end their friendship when Frazier denies the request, and sometimes Frazier feigns an empty wallet to get out of handing cash over to Le. Frazier is asked over and over to respect tradition when he enters Le's world, but Le does not respect Frazier's tradition when the situation is reversed. A prime example of Le not respecting Frazier's culture is when Le shows up to Frazier's house unannounced and drunk. It is not Le that is racked with guilt over the event though—which included spilling hot coffee on Frazier's daughter—but it is instead Frazier who feels guilty, and then blames his car accident on his own behavior toward Le.
            After Frazier's car accident, the narrative soon switches to SuAnne. Here, Frazier is outright apologetic: "Reader," he writes, "books are long, and I know that even the faithful reader tries. But I hope a few of you are still with me here. As much as I have wanted to tell you anything, I want to tell you about SuAnne" (199). Frazier's connection to SuAnne is tremulous at best. He did not even know SuAnne. He happens to only drive past the Big Crow Center, and later finds out SuAnne died in a car crash. Though Frazier does not say directly that his auto accident is related to SuAnne, he certainly implies the possibility. The two car accidents make Frazier the same as SuAnne, but what keeps him still separated from a fully developed Native American identity is a seatbelt—a 19th Century English invention that was patented in New York City, an invention, that according to Frazier, Native Americans don't use. Despite SuAnne's car accident, despite Frazier's car accident and his walking the place where SuAnne had wrecked, despite his dreaming of a historical marker, Frazier is still left white, and Le seemingly walks off into the sunset, never to be seen again—or at least, never to be seen again in this particular narrative.
            Having in the past read Natives and Academics, edited by Devon Abbott Mihesuah,
I am appreciative that Frazier does not offer any hard conclusions on the Native American way of life—especially on reservation life—but I wish he had been more decisive or concrete on how this experience had affected him personally, and I believe this is the story he wanted to tell as opposed to the polar opposite stories he did tell of Le War Lance and SuAnne Big Crow. Frazier seems ambivalent, yet unwilling to admit in a bold statement his ambivalence. He seems to be suffering from a case of white guilt, yet is either unaware or also unwilling to admit this as well.
            Frazier's account has led me to examine my own motives for taking up the American Indian minor. In the beginning, I told myself an American Indian minor would look good on my CV, especially one from the University of Wyoming where four hours away sits Wind River Reservation, a place I have never been.
            I have been told all my life that on my father's side, there is Indian blood in our family. Upon later investigation, my great-great-great grandfather worked on the railroad and had babies with lots of women who all happened to be Indian. I do not know who these relatives are, and if I did I doubt seriously they'd want to speak with me. More recently, it was discovered on my mother's side of the family that a Frey may have been involved in the founding of an Indian school for the sole purposes of making money. The family connection to an Indian school is difficult to prove at this point, but around Thanksgiving the family sits around the table and brags about how they helped Indians learn English. I have wondered from time to time how much of my interest in Native Americans is tied to "white guilt." I am certain, unlike Frazier, I am not a wannabe. I like that seatbelt—that space in between that keeps a certain amount of distance. That being said, I too, like Frazier, have cultivated friendships with people living on reservations, and it is a messy thing, those relationships, but then all relationships are messy and can never be reduced to a line on a CV.

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